I remember my postpartum depression and anxiety. I was so overwhelmed fighting for survival day by day, that energy for anything other than that was non existent. On the rare days that I wasn’t flattened with fatigue, my anxiety left me too scattered to focus. My depression swallowed up the motivation I needed to venture beyond the basics of caring for my baby.
When I began my therapy with a mental health specialist, I was desperate to get better. I asked her to tell me what I needed to do to feel like myself again. She minced no words: I needed to see my physician for appropriate care, get sleep, seek social support. And exercise.
Exercise? That sounded like a fluff answer. I stared at her in disbelief. Didn’t she hear me say I wasn’t even been able to focus enough to figure out how to unfold the new stroller my mother had bought me? How was I going to plan for exercise? But she was firm, her prescription for daily exercise was non-negotiable. We brainstormed ways to find 30 minutes a day to rid my body of pent up stress hormones. My therapist promised me that the rewards would be worth the effort. I would feel relaxed, my body would increase in feel-good hormones, I would sleep better, and feel better about myself. And I would begin to move toward recovery. Our only question now, was how to fit it in.
I wanted a sense of well-being, it was what I had been pursuing, but any chance of that eluded me since my baby was born. No doubt, I had to find a way to make exercise part of my life. Exercise is one of most effective, quickest ways of improving mental health, a little of it goes a long way. Consistent exercise will relieve stress, ease depression and anxiety, clear your head, help you sleep better, and make you feel happy.
We discussed my daily schedule. My therapist noted that early mornings were too stressful for me to consider fitting in exercise then, but that right after lunch, my baby and I were both in good moods. He was usually ready to nap and I was ready for a change of scenery. What she advised was for me to pencil in a standing date for a 30 minute walk at the same time every day. I felt nervous about this commitment, everything translated into pressure for me during that time. She encouraged me and together we decided on a one o’clock walk in the afternoon. All I had to do was figure out how to open the stroller, and go.
In only one week, I felt a difference. Maybe it was the fresh air, maybe it was the people that nodded hello, maybe it was the time to myself to think without looking around and seeing energy-sapping piles of piles of laundry and dusty furniture. Whatever the reason, I began to look forward to my daily walk. Before the month was out, I had increased my walks from 30 minutes to an hour. I felt good and I felt something new: hope.
At my next session, I told my therapist I was beginning to feel that maybe I would recover from PPD. Up until this point, my mind was filled with nothing but hopeless feelings of a future without change. My therapist explained how exercise lifts moods. Exercise releases endorphins and endorphins are the things you want in your body to keep you feeling that hope. I felt my mental fog clearing after every walk. I could thank endorphins for that. My hour long walk was exercise that was stimulating more feel-good hormones!
There were so many reasons for my mood brightening. The weekly therapy sessions gave me a chance to work through issues, but it was the way I felt in being able to stick to my walking schedule that gave me a sense of accomplishment after feeling nothing positive about myself for months.
When I pushed my stroller, my back was straight, my head was high, and my legs and arms felt strong from the 22 pounds of baby I was walking one hour a day, seven days a week. I would pass through parks, sorting through my emotions and processing the work we were doing in therapy. My one hour of walking became like an additional daily hour of therapy.
I first began walking, seeing it as a chore. But my daily 60 minutes grew into something I started looking forward to. I didn’t feel as tired, either, because of the way exercise was helping me to sleep better now.
On the days that I wasn’t able to walk because of weather, I went to a mall or danced at home while holding Alec. I moved my body for one hour and my son loved it as much as I did. He giggled as I twirled him around and just like that, we now had an hour of warm bonding time. This is something I welcomed as a replacement to the negative self talk I had been having with my postpartum depression.
I know that the reasons we think we have to not exercise, like no time, no energy, too sad, too tired, seem real. We may feel like these conditions are impossible to overcome, but even ten minutes at a time will make a step in the direction of recovery from postpartum depression and anxiety.
What my therapist had told me about exercise being essential to my mental health was true. I could exercise without needing it to be formal or structured. I didn’t need two hours on gym equipment with a personal trainer. I didn’t need to run five miles to get an aerobic work out. I could exercise without finding a babysitter and driving to a gym. I only needed one thing: a consistent exercise schedule.
My therapist hadn’t left the choice of exercise up to me or as an option. She told me exercise was required as part of my mental health care plan to recover from my postpartum depression, anxiety, and stress.
She was right.